Holy disruption: children and small congregations

Committing resources to new families

By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today

What should small congregations do with people in their 30s and 40s, as well as their kids? What things might have to change? These are not logistical decisions but decisions of faith. Getty Images/FatCamera

My husband and I had been married for three years when we had our first child. We learned quickly that even though we loved our daughter deeply, kids are disruptive and expensive. The change to our family meant learning to live on less sleep and a smaller income. It meant figuring out who would do midnight feedings and make sure there were clean diapers. Once our daughter started crawling, it meant rearranging everything so that it wouldn’t be destroyed by a curious, free-range toddler.

I can distinctly remember sitting in the living room one evening while my daughter played on the floor. My husband got up and went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. He just walked out of the room. I was totally annoyed that he would just leave without asking if I would keep an eye on our daughter. He assumed I would take care of her if he left the room.

Fast-forward 20 years and I’m having the same conversation in the small church that I serve part-time. After a decade or so without children, we have been blessed with a few new people and children. Like my husband and me, the people in the sanctuary are trying to figure out what to do with people in their 30s and 40s, as well as their kids. What things might have to change? Who will watch the kids? Do the old assumptions of a volunteer nursery and Sunday school still work?

This new column, “Thinking Small,” explores the joys and challenges of serving a small church. Many of the columns will feature stories and observations rather than explanations of how to do things. This is because small churches are like families. No two are alike. Some of us have a crazy Uncle John on the fringes or Martha the Martyr in the kitchen. Some of us are split like the Hatfields and the McCoys, sitting on opposite sides of the sanctuary in our “assigned” pews.

Like most families, small congregations are committed, even when it might seem like some folks don’t like each other. We gather every week because God calls us together in all of our glory and dysfunction, and has for years.

In a small congregation, the loss or gain of a few folks can make a huge difference. We’ve lost longtime leaders, and God has provided new ones who have changed the personality of the church. We’ve added children whose chaotic movement, loud whispers and occasional cries have changed the nature of worship, making it feel more … um … spirited.

The children have been a welcome, holy disruption. Like any family we are debating who’s in charge and what good discipline and education look like. Changes requiring background checks and fingerprinting for volunteers make finding nursery attendants and Sunday school teachers more challenging. Stern Uncle Fred thinks kids should sit like statues in the pews. Indulgent Aunt Sally doesn’t mind if they wander up to her for a hug mid-sermon. Cousin Joe thinks we should hire a nursery attendant/children’s leader, and Way-back Wanda thinks the parents should sit in the nursery with the kids.

But the issues are bigger than they first appear. The question of who will watch the kids in the nursery is really: Who is responsible for fulfilling our baptismal vows to nurture the children? The question of whether kids should be in the sanctuary or a nursery is really a question of whose needs take priority during worship. Finally, there is the big question: How will we pay for the care that children need? Which is really: Do we want to commit our resources to these newcomers?

The answers to these questions aren’t logistical business decisions. They are decisions of faith. Wrestling with them is allowing us to explore who we are as a church and to decide if we really do want those young families we hoped for. We can choose not to allocate resources and likely watch our new members drift away, or we can discern what new thing God may be doing in our midst and welcome the holy disruption.

The Rev. Sue Washburn is the pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.

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